Category Archives: CJEU case-law

Brief case-law companion for the GDPR professional

This collection of quotes from relevant case-law has been compiled with the purpose of being useful to all those working with EU data protection law. The majority of the selected findings are part of a “Countdown to the GDPR” I conducted on social media, one month before the Regulation became applicable, under #KnowYourCaseLaw. This exercise was prompted by a couple of reasons.

First, data protection in the EU is much older and wider than the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and it has already invited the highest Courts in Europe to weigh in on the protection of this right. Knowing what those Courts have said is essential.

Data protection law in the EU is not only a matter of pure EU law, but also a matter of protecting human rights following the legal framework of the Council of Europe (starting with Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights – ‘ECHR’). The interplay between these two legal regimes is very important, given the fact that the EU recognizes fundamental rights protected by the ECHR as general principles of EU law – see Article 6(3) TEU.

Finally, knowing relevant case-law makes the difference between a good privacy professional and a great one.

What to expect

This is not a comprehensive collection of case-law and it does not provide background for the cases it addresses. The Handbook of data protection law, edition 2018, is a great resource if this is what you are looking for.

This is a collection of specific findings of the Court of Justice of the EU (CJEU), the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) and one bonus finding of the German Constitutional Court. There are certainly other interesting findings that have not been included here (how about an “Encyclopedia of interesting findings” for the next project?). The ones that have been included provide insight into specific issues, such as the definition of personal data, what constitutes data related to health, what does freely consent mean or what type of interference with fundamental rights is profiling. Readers will even find a quote from a concurring opinion of an ECtHR judge that is prescient, to say the least.

Enjoy the read!

Brief Case-Law Companion for the GDPR Professional

Exam scripts are partly personal data and other practical findings of the CJEU in Nowak

The Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) gave its judgment in Case C-434/16 Nowak on 20 December 2017, and it is significant from several points of view:

  • It provides a good summarized description of what constitutes “personal data”, referring to both objective and subjective information, regardless of its sensitivity, and it also details what the “related to” criterion from the legal definition of personal data means;
  • It *almost* departs from its YS jurisprudence on the concept of personal data;
  • It applies the interpretation that the Article 29 Working Party gave to the “related to” criterion in its Opinion on personal data from 2007, highlighting thus the weight that the interpretation of data protection law given by the European DPAs might have;
  • It establishes that written answers submitted by a candidate during an exam are personal data of the candidate (this is relevant for all education services providers);
  • It also establishes that the questions of the exam do not fall in the category of “personal data” – hence, not the entire exam script is considered personal data, but only the answers submitted by the candidate;
  • It establishes that the comments reviewers make on the margins of one’s written answers to an exam are personal data of the person being examined, while also being personal data of the reviewer;
  • It establishes that exam scripts should only be kept in an identifiable form only as long as they can be challenged.

This comment looks closer at all of these findings.

Facts of the Case

Mr Nowak was a trainee accountant who requested access to his exam script from the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Ireland (CAI), after failing the examination. He first challenged the results of the exam with no success. He then submitted a subject access request to the CAI, asking to receive a copy of all his personal data held by the CAI. He obtained 17 documents, but the exam script was not among them.

Mr Nowak brought this to the attention of the Irish Data Protection Commissioner (DPC) through an email, arguing that his exam script was also his personal data. The DPC  answered by email that exam scripts “would not generally constitute personal data”. Mr Nowak submitted then a formal complaint with the DPC against the CAI. The official response of the DPC was to reject the complaint on the ground that it is “frivolous or vexatious” (the same reason used to reject the first complaint of Max Schrems challenging the EU-US Safe Harbor scheme).

Mr Nowak then challenged this decision of the Irish DPC in front of the Circuit Court, then the High Court and then the Court of Appeal, which all decided against him. Finally, he challenged the decision of the Court of Appeal at the Supreme Court who decided to stay proceedings and send questions for a preliminary ruling to the CJEU, since the case required interpretation of EU law – in particular, how should the concept of “personal data” as provided for by EU Directive 95/46 be interpreted (a small procedural reminder here: Courts of last instance are under an obligation to send questions for a preliminary ruling to the CJEU in all cases that require the interpretation of EU law, per Article 267 TFEU last paragraph).

Questions referred

The Supreme Court asked the CJEU two questions (in summary):

  1. Is information recorded in/as answers given by an exam candidate capable of being personal data?
  2. If this is the case, then what factors are relevant in determining whether in a given case such information is personal data?

Pseudonymised data is personal data

First, recalling its Breyer jurisprudence, the Court establishes that, for information to be treated as personal data, it is of no relevance whether all the information enabling the identification of the data subject is in the hands of one person or whether the identifiers are separated (§31). In this particular case, it is not relevant “whether the examiner can or cannot identify the candidate at the time when he/she is correcting and marking the examination script” (§30).

The Court then looks at the definition of personal data from Directive 95/46, underlying that it has two elements: “any information” and “related to an identified or identifiable natural person”.

“Any information” means literally any information, be it objective or subjective

The Court recalls that the scope of Directive 95/46 is “very wide and the personal data covered … is varied” (§33).

“The use of the expression ‘any information’ in the definition of the concept of ‘personal data’ … reflects the aim of the EU legislature to assign a wide scope to that concept, which is not restricted to information that is sensitive or private, but potentially encompasses all kinds of information, not only objective but also subjective, in the form of opinions and assessments, provided that it ‘relates’ to the data subject.” (§34)

Save this paragraph, as it is a new jurisprudential source of describing what constitutes personal data – it is certainly a good summary, in line with the Court’s previous case-law (see an excellent overview of the Court’s approach to the definition of personal data here, p. 40 – 41). It makes clear that, for instance, comments on social media, reviews of products/companies, ratings and any other subjective assessments are personal data, as long as they relate to an identified or identifiable individual. This is also true for any sort of objective information (think shoe number), regardless of whether it is sensitive or private, as long as it relates to an identified or identifiable individual.

“Related to” must be judged in relation to “content, purpose or effect/consequences”

The condition for any information to be considered personal data is that it relates to a natural person. According to the Court, this means that “by reason of its content, purpose or effect, (it) is linked to a particular person” (§35). The Court thus applies the test developed by the Article 29 Working Party in its 2007 Opinion on the concept of personal data. Ten years ago, the DPAs wrote that “in order to consider that the data ‘relate’ to an individual, a ‘content’ element OR a ‘purpose’ element OR a ‘result’ element should be present” (2007 Opinion, p. 10).

The Court now adopted this test in its case-law, giving an indication of how important the common interpretation given by data protection authorities in official guidance is. However, the Court does not directly refer to the Opinion.

Applying the test to the facts of the case, the Court showed that the content of exam answers “reflects the extent of the candidate’s knowledge and competence in a given field and, in some cases, his intellect, thought processes, and judgment” (§37). Additionally, following AG Kokott’s Opinion, the Court also pointed out that “in the case of a handwritten script, the answers contain, in addition, information as to his handwriting” (§37).

The purpose of the answers is “to evaluate the candidate’s professional abilities and his suitability to practice the profession concerned” (§38) and the consequence of the answers “is liable to have an effect on his or her rights and interests, in that it may determine or influence, for example, the chance of entering the profession aspired to or of obtaining the post sought” (§39).

Comments of reviewers are two times personal data

The test is then applied to the comments of reviewers on the margin of a candidate’s answers. The Court showed that “The content of those comments reflects the opinion or the assessment of the examiner of the individual performance of the candidate in the examination, particularly of his or her knowledge and competences in the field concerned. The purpose of those comments is, moreover, precisely to record the evaluation by the examiner of the candidate’s performance, and those comments are liable to have effects for the candidate” (§43).

It is important to note here that complying with only one of the three criteria (content, purpose, effects) is enough to qualify information as “relating to” an individuals, even if the Court found in this particular case that all of them are met. This is shown by the us of “or” in the enumeration made in §35, as shown above.

The Court also found that “the same information may relate to a number of individuals and may constitute for each of them, provided that those persons are identified or identifiable, personal data” (§45), having regard to the fact that the comments of the examiners are personal data of both the examiners and the “examinee”.

Information can be Personal data regardless of whether one is able to rectify it or not

It was the Irish DPC that argued that qualifying information as “personal data” should be affected by the fact that the consequence of that classification is, in principle, that the candidate has rights of access and rectification (§46). The logic here was that if data cannot be rectified, it cannot be considered personal – just as exam answers cannot be rectified after the exam finished.

The Court (rightfully so) disagreed with this claim, following the opinion of the Advocate General and contradicting its own findings in Case C-141/12 YS (see a more detailed analysis of the interaction between the two judgments below). It argued that “a number of principles and safeguards, provided for by Directive 95/46, are attached to that classification and follow from that classification” (§47), meaning that protecting personal data goes far beyond the ability to access and rectify your data. This finding is followed by a summary of the fundamental mechanisms encompassed by data protection.

Data protection is a web of safeguards, accountability and individual rights

Starting from recital 25 of Directive 95/46 (yet again, how important recitals are! Think here of Recital 4 of the GDPR and the role it can play in future cases – “The processing of personal data should be designed to serve mankind”), the Court stated that:

“…the principles of protection provided for by that directive are reflected, on the one hand, in the obligations imposed on those responsible for processing data, obligations which concern in particular data quality, technical security, notification to the supervisory authority, and the circumstances under which processing can be carried out, and, on the other hand, in the rights conferred on individuals, the data on whom are the subject of processing, to be informed that processing is taking place, to consult the data, to request corrections and even to object to processing in certain circumstances” (§48).

The Court thus looks at data protection as a web of accountability, safeguards (reflected in technical security measures, data quality, conditions for lawful processing data) and rights conferred to the individuals.

In this case, not considering exam answers personal data just because they cannot be “corrected” after the exam would strip this information from the other web of protections, such as being processed on a legitimate ground, being retained only for the necessary period of time and so on. The Court does not phrase this finding this way, but it states that:

“Accordingly, if information relating to a candidate, contained in his or her answers submitted at a professional examination and in the comments made by the examiner with respect to those answers, were not to be classified as ‘personal data’, that would have the effect of entirely excluding that information from the obligation to comply not only with the principles and safeguards that must be observed in the area of personal data protection, and, in particular, the principles relating to the quality of such data and the criteria for making data processing legitimate, established in Articles 6 and 7 of Directive 95/46, but also with the rights of access, rectification and objection of the data subject, provided for in Articles 12 and 14 of that directive, and with the supervision exercised by the supervisory authority under Article 28 of that directive” (§49).

Furthermore, the Court shows that errors in the answers given to an exam do not constitute “inaccuracy” of personal data, because the level of knowledge of a candidate is revealed precisely by the errors in his or her answers, and revealing the level of knowledge is the purpose of this particular data processing. As the Court explains, “[i]t is apparent from Article 6(1)(d) of Directive 95/46 that the assessment of whether personal data is accurate and complete must be made in the light of the purpose for which that data was collected” (§53).

Exam scripts should only be kept in an identifiable form as long as they can be challenged

The Court further explained that both exam answers and reviewers’ comments can nevertheless be subject to “inaccuracy” in a data protection sense, “for example due to the fact that, by mistake, the examination scripts were mixed up in such a way that the answers of another candidate were ascribed to the candidate concerned, or that some of the cover sheets containing the answers of that candidate are lost, so that those answers are incomplete, or that any comments made by an examiner do not accurately record the examiner’s evaluation of the answers of the candidate concerned” (§54).

Also, the Court also admitted the possibility that “a candidate may, under Article 12(b) of Directive 95/46, have the right to ask the data controller to ensure that his examination answers and the examiner’s comments with respect to them are, after a certain period of time, erased, that is to say, destroyed” (§55).

Another finding of the Court that will be useful to schools, universities and other educational institutions is that keeping exam scripts related to an identifiable individual is not necessary anymore after the examination procedure is closed and can no longer be challenged: “Taking into consideration the purpose of the answers submitted by an examination candidate and of the examiner’s comments with respect to those answers, their retention in a form permitting the identification of the candidate is, a priori, no longer necessary as soon as the examination procedure is finally closed and can no longer be challenged, so that those answers and comments have lost any probative value” (§55).

The Court distances itself from the findings in C-141/12 YS, but still wants to keep that jurisprudence alive

One of the biggest questions surrounding the judgment in Nowak was whether the Court will follow AG’s Opinion and change it’s jurisprudence from C-141/12 YS.  In that judgment, the Court found that the legal analysis used by the Dutch Ministry of Immigration in a specific case of asylum seekers is not personal data, and the main reason invoked was that “[i]n contrast to the data relating to the applicant for a residence permit which is in the minute and which may constitute the factual basis of the legal analysis contained therein, such an analysis … is not in itself liable to be the subject of a check of its accuracy by that applicant and a rectification under Article 12(b) of Directive 95/46” (§45).

The Court further noted: “In those circumstances, extending the right of access of the applicant for a residence permit to that legal analysis would not in fact serve the directive’s purpose of guaranteeing the protection of the applicant’s right to privacy with regard to the processing of data relating to him, but would serve the purpose of guaranteeing him a right of access to administrative documents, which is not however covered by Directive 95/46.” Finally, the finding was that “[i]t follows from all the foregoing considerations … that the data relating to the applicant for a residence permit contained in the minute and, where relevant, the data in the legal analysis contained in the minute are ‘personal data’ within the meaning of that provision, whereas, by contrast, that analysis cannot in itself be so classified” (§48).

Essentially, in YS the Court linked the ability of accessing and correcting personal data with the classification of information as personal data, finding that if the information cannot be corrected, then it cannot be accessed and it cannot be classified as personal data.

By contrast, following AG Kokott’s analysis, in Nowak the Court essentially states that classifying information as personal data must not be affected by the existence of the rights to access and rectification – in the sense that the possibility to effectively invoke them should not play a role in establishing that certain information is or is not personal data: “the question whether written answers submitted by a candidate at a professional examination and any comments made by an examiner with respect to those answers should be classified as personal data cannot be affected … by the fact that the consequence of that classification is, in principle, that the candidate has rights of access and rectification, pursuant to Article 12(a) and (b) of Directive 95/46” (§46).

However, the Court is certainly not ready to fully change its jurisprudence established in YS, and even refers to its judgment in YS in a couple of paragraphs. In the last paragraphs of Nowak, the Court links the ability to correct or erase data to the existence of the right of accessing that data (but not to classifying information as personal data).

The Court states that: “In so far as the written answers submitted by a candidate at a professional examination and any comments made by an examiner with respect to those answers are therefore liable to be checked for, in particular, their accuracy and the need for their retention… and may be subject to rectification or erasure…, the Court must hold that to give a candidate a right of access to those answers and to those comments… serves the purpose of that directive of guaranteeing the protection of that candidate’s right to privacy with regard to the processing of data relating to him (see, a contrario, judgment of 17 July 2014, YS and Others, C‑141/12 and C‑372/12, EU:C:2014:2081, paragraphs 45 and 46), irrespective of whether that candidate does or does not also have such a right of access under the national legislation applicable to the examination procedure”.

After previously showing an ever deeper understanding of data protection in its Nowak judgment, the Court sticks to some of its findings from YS, even if this meant perpetuating a confusion between the fundamental right to respect for private life and the fundamental right to the protection of personal data: “it must be recalled that the protection of the fundamental right to respect for private life means, inter alia, that any individual may be certain that the personal data relating to him is correct and that it is processed in a lawful manner” (§57 in Nowak and §44 in YS). Lawful processing of personal data and the right to keep personal data accurate are, in fact, enshrined in Article 8 of the EU Charter – the right to the protection of personal data, and not in Article 7 – the right to respect for private life.

Obiter dictum 1: the curious insertion of “exam questions” in the equation

The Court also does something curious in these last paragraphs. It simply states, after the paragraphs sending to the YS judgment, that “the rights of access and rectification, under Article 12(a) and (b) of Directive 95/46, do not extend to the examination questions, which do not as such constitute the candidate’s personal data” (§58). The national court did not ask about this specific point. AG Kokott also does not address this issue at all in her Opinion. This might have been raised during the hearing, but no context is provided to it. The Court simply states that “Last, it must be said…” and follows it with the finding regarding test questions.

While it is easy to see that questions of a specific test, by themselves, are not personal data, as they do not relate with regard to their content, purpose or effect to a specific individual, the situation is not as clear when the questions are part of the “solved” exam sheet of a specific candidate. The question is: “Are the answers of the test inextricably linked to the questions?” Imagine a multiple choice test, where the candidate only gains access to his/her answers, without obtaining access to the questions of that test. Accessing the answers would be unintelligible. For instance, EPSO candidates have been trying for years to access their own exam sheets held by the EPSO agency of the European Union, with no success. This is exactly because EPSO only provides access to the series of letters chosen as answers from the multiple choice test. Challenges of this practice have all failed, including those brought to the attention of the former Civil Service Tribunal of the CJEU (see this case, for example). This particular finding in Nowak closes the barely opened door for EPSO candidates to finally have access to their whole test sheet.

Obiter dictum 2: reminding Member States they can restrict the right of access

With an apparent reason and referring to the GDPR, the CJEU recalls, as another obiter dictum, under the same “it must be said” (§58 and §59), that both Directive 95/46 and the GDPR “provide for certain restrictions of those rights” (§59) – access, erasure etc.

It also specifically refers to grounds that can be invoked by Member States when limiting the right to access under the GDPR: when such a restriction constitutes a necessary measure to safeguard the rights and freedoms of others (§60,§61), or if it is done for other objectives of general public interest of the Union or of a Member State (§61).

These findings are not followed by any other considerations, as the Court concludes with a finding that had already been reached around §50: “the answer to the questions referred is that Article 2(a) of Directive 95/46 must be interpreted as meaning that, in circumstances such as those of the main proceedings, the written answers submitted by a candidate at a professional examination and any comments made by an examiner with respect to those answers constitute personal data, within the meaning of that provision” (§62).

If you want to have a look at a summary of AG Kokott’s excellent Conclusions in this case and then compare them to the judgment of the Court, click here. The Court did follow the Conclusions to a great extent.

 

Exam scripts and examiner’s corrections are personal data of the exam candidate (AG Kokott Opinion in Nowak)

AG Kokott delivered her Opinion on 20 July in Case C-434/16 Nowak v Data Protection Commissioner, concluding that “a handwritten examination script capable of being ascribed to an examination candidate, including any corrections made by examiners that it may contain, constitutes personal data within the meaning of Article 2(a) of Directive 95/46/EC” (Note: all highlights in this post are mine).
This is a really exciting Opinion because it provides insight into:

  • the definition of personal data,
  • the purpose and the functionality of the rights of the data subject,
  • the idea of abusing data protection related rights for non-data protection purposes,
  • how the same ‘data item’ can be personal data of two distinct data subjects (examiners and examinees),
  • what constitutes a “filing system” of personal data processed otherwise than by automated means.

But also because it technically (even if not literally) invites the Court to change its case-law on the definition of personal data, and specifically the finding that information consisting in a legal assessment of facts related to an individual does not qualify as personal data (see C-141/12 and C-372/12 YS and Others).

The proceedings were initially brought in front of the Irish Courts by Mr Nowak, who, after failing an exam organised by a professional association of accountants (CAI) four times, asked for access to see his exam sheet on the basis of the right to access his own personal data. Mr Nowak submitted a request to access all his personal data held by CAI and received 17 items, none of which was the exam sheet. He then submitted a complaint to the Irish Data Protection Commissioner, who decided not to investigate it, arguing that an exam sheet is not personal data. The decision not to investigate on this ground was challenged in front of a Court. Once the case reached the Irish Supreme Court, it was referred to the Court of Justice of the EU to clarify whether an exam sheet falls under the definition of “personal data” (§9 to §14).

Analysis relevant both for Directive 95/46 and for the GDPR

Yet again, AG Kokott refers to the GDPR in her Conclusions, clarifying that “although the Data Protection Directive will shortly be repealed by the General Data Protection Regulation, which is not yet applicable, the latter will not affect the concept of personal data. Therefore, this request for a preliminary ruling is also of importance for the future application of the EU’s data protection legislation” (m.h.).

The nature of an exam paper is “strictly personal and individual”

First, the AG observes that “the scope of the Data Protection Directive is very wide and the personal data covered by the Directive is varied” (§18).

The Irish DPC argued that an exam script is not personal data because “examination exercises are normally formulated in abstract terms or relate to hypothetical situations”, which means that “answers to them are not liable to contain any information relating to an identified or identifiable individual” (§19).

This view was not followed by the AG, who explained that it is incongruent with the purpose of an exam. “In every case“, she wrote, “the aim of an examination — as opposed, for example, to a representative survey — is not to obtain information that is independent of an individual. Rather, it is intended to identify and record the performance of a particular individual, i.e. the examination candidate”  (§24; m.h.). Therefore, “every examination aims to determine the strictly personal and individual performance of an examination candidate. There is a good reason why the unjustified use in examinations of work that is not one’s own is severely punished as attempted deception” (§24; m.h.).

What about exam papers identified by codes?

In a clear indication that pseudonymized data are personal data, the AG further noted that an exam script is personal data also in those cases where instead of bearing the examination candidate’s name, the script has an identification number or bar code: “Under Article 2(a) of the Data Protection Directive, it is sufficient for the existence of personal information that the data subject may at least be indirectly identified. Thus, at least where the examination candidate asks for the script from the organisation that held the examination, that organisation can identify him by means of the identification number” (§28).

Characteristics of handwriting, personal data themselves 

The AG accepted the argument of Mr Nowak that answers to an exam that are handwritten “contain additional information about the examination candidate, namely about his handwriting” (&29). Therefore, the characteristics of the handwriting are personal data themselves. The AG explains that “a script that is handwritten is thus, in practice, a handwriting sample that could at least potentially be used at a later date as evidence to determine whether another text was also written in the examination candidate’s writing. It may thus provide indications of the identity of the author of the script” (§29). According to the AG, it’s not relevant whether such a handwriting sample is a suitable means of identifying the writer beyond doubt: “Many other items of personal data are equally incapable, in isolation, of allowing the identification of individuals beyond doubt” (§30).

Classifying information as ‘personal data’ is a stand alone exercise (does not depend on whether rights can be exercised)

The Irish DPC argued that one of the reasons why exam scripts are not personal data in this case is because the “purpose” of the right to access and the right to rectification of personal data precludes them to be “personal data” (§31). The DPC is concerned that Recital 41 of Directive 95/46 specifies that any person must be able to exercise the right of access to data relating to him which is being processed, in order to verify in particular the accuracy of the data and the lawfulness of the processing. “The examination candidate will seek the correction of incorrect examination answers”, the argument goes (§31).

AG Kokott rebuts this argument by acknowledging that the classification of information as personal data “cannot be dependent on whether there are specific provisions about access to this information” or on eventual problems with rectification of data (§34). “If those factors were regarded as determinative, certain personal data could be excluded from the entire protective system of the Data Protection Directive, even though the rules applicable in their place do not ensure equivalent protection but fragmentary protection at best” (§34)

Even if classification information as “personal data” would depend in any way on the purpose of the right to access, the AG makes it clear that this purpose is not strictly linked to rectification, blocking or erasure: “data subjects generally have a legitimate interest in finding out what information about them is processed by the controller” (§39). This finding is backed up by the use of “in particular” in Recital 41 of the Directive (§39).

The purpose of processing and… the passage of time, both relevant for obtaining access, rectification

After clarifying that it’s irrelevant what an individual wants to do with their data, once accessed (see also the summary below on the ‘abuse of rights’), AG Kokott explains that a legitimate interest in correcting an “exam script”-related data is conceivable.

She starts from the premise that “the accuracy and completeness of personal data pursuant to Article 6(1)(d) must be judged by reference to the purpose for which the data was collected and processed” (§35). The AG further identifies the purpose of an exam script as determining  “the knowledge and skills of the examination candidate at the time of the examination, which is revealed precisely by his examination performance and particularly by the errors in the examination” (§35). “The existence of errors in the solution does not therefore mean that the personal data incorporated in the script is inaccurate”, the AG concludes (§35).

Rectification could be achieved if, for instance, “the script of another examination candidate had been ascribed to the data subject, which could be shown by means of, inter alia, the handwriting, or if parts of the script had been lost” (§36).

The AG also found that the legitimate interest of the individual to have access to their own data is strengthened by the passage of time, to the extent that their recollection of the contents of their answer is likely to be considerably weaker a few years after the exam. This makes it possible that “a genuine need for information, for whatever reasons, will be reflected in a possible request for access. In addition, there is greater uncertainty with the passing of time — in particular, once any time limits for complaints and checks have expired — about whether the script is still being retained. In such circumstances the examination candidate must at least be able to find out whether his script is still being retained” (§41).

Is Mr Nowak abusing his right of access under data protection law?

AG Kokott recalls CJEU’s case-law on “abuse of rights” and the double test required by the Court to identify whether there had been any abuse of rights in a particular case (C-423/15 Kratzer and the case-law cited there at §38 to §40), which can be summed up to (§44):

i) has the purpose of the EU legislation in question been misused?

ii)  is the essential aim of the transaction to obtain an undue advantage?

The DPC submitted during the procedure that if exam scripts would be considered personal data, “a misuse of the aim of the Data Protection Directive would arise in so far as a right of access under data protection legislation would allow circumvention of the rules governing the examination procedure and objections to examination decisions” (§45).

The AG considers that “any alleged circumvention of the procedure for the examination and objections to the examination results via the right of access laid down by data protection legislation would have to be dealt with using the provisions of the Data Protection Directive” and she specifically refers to the restrictions to the right of access laid down in Article 13 of the Directive with the aim “to protect certain interests specified therein” (§46). She also points out that if restricting access to exam scripts can’t be circumscribed to those exceptions, than “it must be recognised that the legislature has given precedence to the data protection requirements which are anchored in fundamental rights over any other interests affected in a specific instance” (§47).

The AG also looks at the exceptions to the right of access under the GDPR and finds that it is more nuanced than the Directive in this regard. “First, under Article 15(4) of the regulation, the right to obtain a copy of personal data is not to adversely affect the rights and freedoms of others. Second, Article 23 of the regulation sets out the grounds for a restriction of data protection guarantees in slightly broader terms than Article 13 of the Directive, since, in particular, protection of other important objectives of general public interest of the Union or of a Member State pursuant to Article 23(1)(e) of the regulation may justify restrictions” (§48).

However, it seems that she doesn’t find the slight broadening of the scope of exemptions in the GDPR as justifying the idea of an abuse of right in this particular case.

The AG also argues that “on the other hand, the mere existence of other national legislation that also deals with access to examination scripts is not sufficient to allow the assumption that the purpose of the Directive is being misused” (§49). She concludes that even if such misuse would be conceivable, the second limb of the “abuse of rights” test would not be satisfied: “it is still not apparent where the undue advantage lies if an examination candidate were to obtain access to his script via his right of access. In particular, no abuse can be identified in the fact that someone obtains information via the right of access which he could not otherwise have obtained” (§50).

Examiner’s correction on the exam script are the examinee’s personal data and his/her own personal data at the same time

The AG looks into whether any corrections made by the examiner on the examination script are also personal data with respect to the examination candidate (a question raised by some of the parties), even though she considers that the answer will not impact the result of the main proceedings (§52, §53).

It is apparent that the facts of this case resemble the facts of YS and Others, where the Court refused extension of the right of access to the draft legal analysis of an asylum application on the grounds that that did not serve the purpose of the Data Protection Directive but would establish a right of access to administrative documents. The Court argued in YS that such an analysis “is not information relating to the applicant for a residence permit, but at most information about the assessment and application by the competent authority of the law to the applicant’s situation” (§59; see YS and Others, §40). The AG considers that only “at first glance” the cases are similar. But she doesn’t convincingly differentiate between the two cases in the arguments that follow.

However, she is convincing when explaining why the examiner’s corrections are “personal data”. AG Kokott explains that the purpose of the comments made by examiners on an exam script is “the evaluation of the examination performance and thus they relate indirectly to the examination candidate” (§61). It does not matter that the examiners don’t know the identity of the examination candidate who produced the script, as long as the candidate can be easily identified by the organisation holding the examination (§60 and §61).

The AG further adds that “comments on an examination script are typically inseparable from the script itself … because they would not have any informative value without it” (§62). And it is “precisely because of that close link between the examination script and any corrections made on it”, that “the latter also are personal data of the examination candidate pursuant to Article 2(a) of the Data Protection Directive” (§63).

In an important statement, the AG considers that “the possibility of circumventing the examination complaint procedure is not, by contrast, a reason for excluding the application of data protection legislation” (§64). “The fact that there may, at the same time, be additional legislation governing access to certain information is not capable of superseding data protection legislation. At most it would be admissible for the individuals concerned to be directed to the simultaneously existing rights of information, provided that these could be effectively claimed” (§64).

Finally, the AG points out “for the sake of completeness” that “corrections made by the examiner are, at the same time, his personal data”. AG Kokott sees the potential conflict between the right of the candidate to access their personal data and the right of the examiners to protect their personal data and underlines that the examiner’s rights “are an appropriate basis in principle for justifying restrictions to the right of access pursuant to Article 13(1)(g) of the Data Protection Directive if they outweigh the legitimate interests of the examination candidate” (§65).

The AG considers that “the definitive resolution to this potential conflict of interests is likely to be the destruction of the corrected script once it is no longer possible to carry out a subsequent check of the examination procedure because of the lapse of time” (§65).

An exam script forms part of a filing system

One last consideration made by AG Kokott is whether processing of an exam script would possibly fall outside the scope of Directive 95/46, considering that it does not seem to be processed using automated means (§66, §67).

The AG points out that the Directive also applies to personal data processed otherwise than by automated means as long as they form part of a “filing system”, even if this “filing system” is not electronically saved (§69).

“This concept covers any structured set of personal data which is accessible according to specific criteria. A physical set of examination scripts in paper form ordered alphabetically or according to other criteria meets those requirements” (§69), concludes the AG.

Conclusion. What will the Court say?

The Conclusions of AG Kokott in Nowak contain a thorough analysis, which brings several dimensions to the data protection debate that have been rarely considered by Courts – the self-standing importance of the right of access to one’s own data (beyond any ‘utilitarianism’ of needing it to obtain something else), the relevance of passage of time for the effectiveness of data protection rights, the limits of the critique that data protection rights may be used to achieve other purposes than data protection per se, the complexity of one data item being personal data of two different individuals (and the competing interests of those two individuals).

The Court will probably closely follow the Conclusions of the AG for most of the points she raised.

The only contentious point will be the classification of an examiner’s corrections as personal data of the examined candidate, because following the AG will mean that the Court would reverse its case-law from YS and Others.

If we apply the criteria developed by AG Kokott in this Opinion, it is quite clear that the analysis concerning YS and their request for asylum is personal data: the legal analysis is closely linked to the facts concerning YS and the other asylum applicants and the fact that there may be additional legislation governing access to certain information (administrative procedures in the case of YS) is not capable of superseding data protection legislation. Moreover, if we add to this the argument that access to one’s own personal data is valuable in itself and does not need to satisfy other purpose, reversing this case-law is even more likely.

The only arguable difference between this case and YS and Others is that, unlike what the AG found in §62 (“comments on an examination script are typically inseparable from the script itself… because they would not have any informative value without it”), it is conceivable that a legal analysis in general may have value by itself. However, a legal analysis of particular facts is void of value when applied to different individual facts. In this sense, a legal analysis can also be considered inseparable from the particular facts it assesses. What would be relevant in classifying it as personal data would then remain the identifiability of the person that the particularities refer to…

I was never convinced by the argumentation of the Court (or AG Sharpston for that matter) in YS and Others and I would welcome either reversing this case-law (which would be compatible with what I was expecting the outcome of YS to be) or having a more convincing argumentation as to why such an analysis/assessment of an identified person’s specific situation is not personal data. However, I am not getting my hopes high. As AG Kokott observed, the issue in the main proceedings can be solved without getting into this particular detail. In any case, I will be looking forward to this judgement.

(Summary and analysis by dr. Gabriela Zanfir-Fortuna)

 

Summary of the Opinion of AG Kokott in Puškár (on effective judicial remedies and lawful grounds for processing other than consent)

The Conclusions of Advocate General Kokott in C-73/16 Puškár were published on 30 March and remained under the radar, even though they deal with a couple of very important questions for EU data protection law that may have wide implications: effective judicial remedies, lawful grounds for processing other than consent, the right to access one’s own personal data. As a bonus, the AG refers to and analyses Article 79 GDPR – the right to a judicial remedy.

The analysis regarding effective judicial remedies under Article 47 Charter and Directive 95/46 could be relevant for the debate on essentially equivalence when it comes to adequacy decisions for international data transfers (for those of you who don’t remember, one of the two main findings in Schrems was that the Safe Harbor framework touched the essence of the right to effective judicial remedies, breaching thus Article 47 Charter). In this sense, the AG founds that a measure that does not restrict the category of people who could in principle have recourse to judicial review does not touch the essence of this right. Per a contrario, if a measure does restrict these categories of people, it would touch the essence of the right to an effective judicial remedy, and, therefore, it would breach the Charter.

Finally, a question of great importance for EU law in general is also tackled: what should national courts do when the case-law of the CJEU and the case-law of the ECtHR diverge regarding the protection of fundamental rights?

Here is what you will further read:

  1. Facts of the case and questions referred to the CJEU
  2. Requiring claimants to exhaust administrative remedies before going to Court can be compatible with the right to effective judicial remedy
  3. Internal documents of a tax authority obtained without the consent of the authority must be admitted as evidence if they contain personal data of the person who obtained the documents
  4. The performance of a task in the public interest allows a tax authority to create a black list without the consent of the persons concerned, if this task was legally assigned to the tax authority and the list’s use is appropriate and necessary (Article 7 and 8 Charter are not breached in this case)
  5. A missed opportunity to better define the difference between the right to privacy and the right to personal data protection
  6. Where ECtHR and CJEU case-law diverge, national courts have to ask the CJEU on how to proceed when the ECtHR case-law provides a higher level of protection for the rights of a person
  7. What to expect from the Court

Note that all highlights from the post are made by the author.

  1. Facts of the case and questions referred to the CJEU

C-73/16 Puškár concerns the request of Mr Puškár to have his name removed from a blacklist kept by the Finance Directorate of Slovakia which contains names and national ID numbers for persons “who purport to act, as ‘fronts’, as company directors”. The list associates a legal person or persons with a natural person who supposedly acted on their behalf (§15) and is created for the purposes of tax administration and combating tax fraud (§23 2nd question for a preliminary ruling). It transpires from several paragraphs of the Conclusions that Mr Puskar found out about the list and the fact that he is on the list from a leak (§23 2nd question;§72; §76). Instead of relying on the more straightforward right to erasure or right to object under data protection law, Mr Puškár claimed that “his inclusion in the above mentioned list infringes his personal rights, specifically the right to the protection of his good name, dignity and good reputation” (§16).

The Supreme Court rejected his claims, partly on procedural issues, partly on substantive grounds (§18). Later, the Constitutional Court found that “the Supreme Court infringed the fundamental right to the protection of personal data against unauthorised collection and other abuses, in addition to the right to privacy”, quashed its decision and send back the case to the Supreme Court for retrial, grounding its findings on ECtHR case-law (§20). In the context of these second round proceedings, the Supreme Court sent questions for a preliminary ruling to the CJEU to essentially clarify:

  • whether the right to an effective remedy under Article 47 of the Charter in the context of data protection is compatible with a national law requirement that a claimant must first exhaust the procedures available under administrative law (administrative complaints) before going to Court;
  • whether the legitimate grounds for processing under Directive 95/46 and Articles 7 and 8 of the Charter preclude tax authorities to create such a blacklist without the consent of the individuals on the list;
  • whether the list obtained by the claimant without the consent of the tax authorities is admissible as evidence;
  • whether national courts should give precedence to the case-law of the CJEU or the case-law of the ECtHR on a specific topic where the two diverge.
  1. Requiring claimants to exhaust administrative remedies before going to Court can be compatible with the right to effective judicial remedy

To reply to the first question, AG Kokott looks at Articles 28(4) and 22 of Directive 95/46 and also at Article 79 of the General Data Protection Regulation, which will replace Directive 95/46 starting with 25 May 2018.

Article 28(4) of Directive 95/46 states that each supervisory authority (Data Protection Authority) is to hear claims lodged by any person concerning the protection of his rights and freedoms with regard to the processing of personal data. Article 22 provides that, without prejudice to the remedy referred to in Article 28(4), every person is to have a right to a judicial remedy for any breach of the rights guaranteed him by the national law applicable to the processing in question (§37, §38).

In practice, this means that an individual who engages in Court proceedings for a breach of data protection law must be able to also initiate administrative proceedings with a DPA (complaints lodged with DPAs).

The same rule is kept under Article 79 GDPR, slightly broadened: the right to a judicial remedy must be effective and must be granted without prejudice to any administrative or non-judicial remedy, including the right to lodge a complaint with a supervisory authority. 

AG Kokott explains that these rules still do not clarify “whether the bringing of legal proceedings may be made contingent upon exhaustion of another remedy. All that can be taken from Article 79 of the General Data Protection Regulation is that the judicial remedy must be effective. An obligation to exhaust some other remedy before bringing legal proceedings will consequently be impermissible if the judicial remedy is rendered ineffective as a result of this precondition” (§43).

The AG found that Article 47(1) of the Charter and the principle of effectiveness “ultimately embody the same legal principle” and that they can be examined jointly using the rules in Articles 47(1) and 52(1) of the Charter – which is the provision that enshrines the rules for limiting the exercise of the fundamental rights in the Charter (§51). Hence, the question is whether the obligation to exhaust administrative procedures before going to Court amounts to a justified interference with the right to an effective judicial remedy.

AG Kokott remarks that the interference is provided for by Slovakian law and that it does not touch the essence of the right to effective judicial remedy because “it does not restrict the category of people who could in principle have recourse to judicial review” (§56). [Small comment here: this means that a provision which would restrict the category of people who could in principle have recourse to judicial review touches the essence of the right in Article 47 Charter. Check out paragraphs 45 and 46 of the EDPS Opinion on the EU-US Umbrella Agreement commenting on the fact that Article 19 of the Agreement provides for the possibility of judicial redress only for citizens of the EU, excluding thus categories of individuals that would otherwise be covered by the Charter, such as asylum seekers and residents].

It remained to be analysed whether the interference complies with the principle of proportionality, which “requires that a measure be ‘appropriate, necessary and proportionate to the objective it pursues’” (§58). The AG retains the submission of the Supreme Court that “the exhaustion of the administrative remedy represents a gain in efficiency, as it provides the administrative authority with an opportunity to remedy the alleged unlawful intervention, and saves it from unwanted court proceedings” (§59). The AG considers that “obligatory preliminary proceedings are undoubtedly appropriate for achieving the objectives” and that a “less onerous method” does not suggest itself as capable of realising them to the same extent (§62).

However, the AG points out that the “specific form” of the administrative remedy is important to determine the appropriateness of the measure in practice. This condition applies in particular if there is uncertainty “as to whether the time limit for bringing an action begins to run before a decision has been made in the administrative action” (§64). Additionally, Article 47(2) Charter establishes the right of every person to have their case dealt with within a reasonable period of time. “While this right in fact relates to judicial proceedings, naturally it may not be undermined by a condition for the bringing of an action” (§67).

In conclusion, the AG considers that the right to effective judicial review under Article 47 Charter and the principle of effectiveness “do not preclude an obligation to exhaust an administrative remedy being a condition on bringing legal proceedings if the rules governing that remedy do not disproportionately impair the effectiveness of judicial protection. Consequently, the obligatory administrative remedy must not cause unreasonable delay or excessive costs for the overall legal remedy” (§71).

  1. Internal documents of a tax authority obtained without the consent of the authority must be admitted as evidence if they contain personal data of the person who obtained the documents

Essentially, the question asked by the Supreme Court is whether the contested list may be excluded as evidence due to the fact that it came into the possession of the claimant without the consent of the competent authorities (§72).

The AG considers that “a review should be carried out to determine whether the person affected has a right of access to the information in question. If this were the case, the interest in preventing unauthorized use would no longer merit protection” (§83).

Further, it is recalled that “under the second sentence of Article 8(2) of the Charter and Article 12 of the Data Protection Directive, everyone has the right of access to data which has been collected concerning him or her. This also applies in principle to data being recorded in the contested list. Furthermore, the persons so affected would, by virtue of the collection of the data, have to be informed of the use of the data, under either Article 10 or Article 11 of the Data Protection Directive” (§85).

While indeed Article 13 of the Directive allows this right to information to be restricted, it also “expressly requires that such restrictions be imposed by legislative measures” (§86). The AG acknowledged that “there is a potential risk that inspection and monitoring activities based on the list would be less effective if it were known who was named on that list” (§87). However, the national Court must examine:

  • “whether a restriction of the right of information of this kind is provided for” (§88) and
  • “where appropriate” if it is “justified” (§88). This is an indication that even if such an exemption would be provided for by law, a further analysis is needed to see whether the exemption is justified.

A key point the AG makes is that “even if there are indications of a legitimate interest in a hypothetical, legally justified non-disclosure of the list in question, the national courts must also examine whether in the individual case these outweigh the legitimate interests of the individual in bringing the proceedings” (§89). This is important because it is a clear indication that when a controller relies on their legitimate interest as a ground for processing, it always has to engage in a balancing exercise with the legitimate interests (and rights) of the data subject.

In conclusion, the AG established that refusing to accept as evidence a document obtained by the claimant without the consent of an authority is not possible under the principle of a fair hearing in Article 47 Charter when the document contains personal data of the claimant, which the authority is required to disclose to the claimant under Article 12 and 13 of the Data Protection Directive.

  1. The performance of a task in the public interest allows a tax authority to create a black list without the consent of the persons concerned, if this task was legally assigned to the tax authority and the list’s use is appropriate and necessary (Article 7 and 8 Charter are not breached in this case)

The Supreme Court wanted to know whether the fundamental right to privacy (Article 7 Charter) and protection of personal data (Article 8 Charter) and the Data Protection Directive prohibit a Member State from creating a list of personal data for the purposes of tax collection without the consent of the persons concerned.

The AG points out that “this question is primarily to be answered in the light of the Data Protection Directive, as this specifies the rights to privacy and data protection” (§95).

The AG further recalls that Article 7 of the Data Protection Directive allows processing of personal data if it is based on one of the six lawful grounds for processing provided for (§99) [NB: of which only one is “consent”!]. While the AG acknowledges that three of the six conditions are applicable in this case (1 – performance of a task in the public interest [Article 7(e)]; 2 – legitimate interest of the controller [Article 7(f)] and 3 – necessity of compliance with a legal obligation [Article 7(c)]), she considers the examination of the latter 2 as “superfluous”: “This is because all parties acknowledge that tax collection and combating tax fraud are tasks in the public interest within the meaning of Article 7(e) of the Data Protection Directive” (§100).

A much-welcomed clarification is further brought by the AG, who specifies that Article 7(e) of the Data Protection Directive “must be read in conjunction with the principles of Article 6. According to Article 6(1)(b), personal data must only be collected for specified, explicit and legitimate purposes. Within the scope of Article 7(e), the purpose of the data processing is inseparably linked to the delegated tasks. Consequently, the transfer of the task must clearly include the purpose of the processing” (§106).

This clarification is welcomed because it reminds controllers that even if they correctly process personal data on one of the lawful grounds for processing (such as consent or legitimate interest) in compliance with Article 7 of the Directive, they still have to comply with all the other safeguards for processing personal data, including the principles for processing in Article 6 of the Directive (purpose limitation, data minimization etc).

The AG remarks that the reference for a preliminary ruling does not specify the purpose of the contested list and leaves it to the Supreme Court to look further into this question (§107). Additionally, the AG also considers that the Supreme Court “will have to examine whether the creation and use of the contested list and in particular the naming of Mr Puškár is necessary for the claimed public interest”. This is yet another reminder how important “necessity” is for personal data protection in the EU legal framework (check out EDPS’s recently published “Necessity Toolkit”).

Another very interesting point that the AG brings forward is how naming a person on this black list constitutes “a considerable interference with the rights of the person concerned”, beyond the right to privacy in Article 7 Charter – it also touches (§110):

  • “his reputation and could lead to serious, practical disadvantages in his dealings with the tax authorities;
  • the presumption of innocence in Article 48(1) of the Charter;
  • the legal persons associated with the person concerned, which will be affected in terms of their freedom to conduct business under Article 16 of the Charter”.

This finding is a testimony of the importance of complying with the right to the protection of personal data, as non-compliance would have various consequences on several other fundamental rights.

As the AG explains, “such a serious interference of this kind can only be proportionate if there are sufficient grounds for the suspicion that the person concerned purported to act as a company director of the legal persons associated with him and in so doing undermined the public interest in the collection of taxes and combating tax fraud” (§111).

In conclusion, the tax authorities can create a blacklist such as the one in the main proceedings on the grounds of Article 7(e) of the Data Protection Directive, but this assumes that (§117):

  • “the task was legally assigned to the tax authorities,
  • the use of the list is appropriate and necessary for the purposes of the tax authorities and
  • there are sufficient grounds to suspect that these persons should be on the list”.
  1. A missed opportunity to better define the difference between the right to privacy and the right to personal data protection

Further, the AG spelled out that “neither the fundamental rights to privacy, Article 7 of the Charter, or data protection, Article 8, would in this case prevent the creation and use of the list” (§117).

The analysis to reach this conclusion was another missed opportunity to persuade the Court of Justice to better delineate the two fundamental rights protected by Article 7 and Article 8 of the Charter. The AG referred to these as “the fundamental rights to privacy and data protection”.

Without a clear analysis of what constitutes interference with the two rights, the AG referred to “naming of a person on the contested list” as “affecting” both fundamental rights (§115). In the same paragraph, she further analysed en masse “these interferences”, writing that they are only justified “if they have a sufficient legal basis, respect the essence of both fundamental rights, and preserve the principle of proportionality” (§ 115). Considering that the legality and proportionality of the measure were addressed in previous sections, the AG merely stated that “the adverse effects associated with inclusion on the contested list, those interferences do not meet the threshold of a breach of the essence of those rights” before concluding that neither of the two Charter articles would prevent the creation of such a blacklist.

  1. Where ECtHR and CJEU case-law diverge, national courts have to ask the CJEU on how to proceed, even if the ECtHR case-law provides a higher level of protection for the rights of a person

The last question is one that is extremely interesting for EU lawyers in general, not necessarily for EU data protection lawyers, because it tackles the issue of different levels of protection of the same fundamental right emerging from the case-law of the Court of Justice of the EU in Luxembourg, on one hand, and the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, on the other hand.

As the AG summarizes it, “the fourth question is aimed at clarifying whether a national court may follow the case-law of the Court of Justice of the European Union where this conflicts with the case-law of the ECtHR” (§118). This issue is relevant in our field because Article 8 of the European Convention of Human Rights shares partially the same material scope of Article 7 and Article 8 of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights (Article 8 of the Convention is more complex), and Article 52(3) of the Charter states that “the rights in the Charter, which correspond to rights guaranteed by the European Convention on the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (ECHR), have the same meaning and scope as conferred by the ECHR” (§122). However, the second sentence of Article 52(3) of the Charter permits EU law to accord more extensive protection (§122).

The AG specifies that “EU law permits the Court of Justice to deviate from the case-law of the ECtHR only to the extent that the former ascribes more extensive protection to specific fundamental rights than the latter. This deviation in turn is only permitted provided that it does not also cause another fundamental right in the Charter corresponding to a right in the ECHR to be accorded less protection than in the case-law of the ECtHR. One thinks, for example, of cases in which a trade-off must be made between specific fundamental rights” (§123).

Not surprisingly, the AG advises that when the case-law of the two Courts comes in conflict, the national courts should directly apply the case-law of the CJEU when it affords more protection to the fundamental rights in question, but they should send a reference for a preliminary ruling to the CJEU to ask which way to go when the case-law of the ECtHR affords enhanced protection to the fundamental right in question (§124 and §125). The argument of the AG is that the latter case “inevitably leads to a question of the interpretation of EU law with regard to the fundamental right in question and Article 52(3) of the Charter” which, if performed by the national Court, could further “amount to the view that the interpretation of the fundamental right in question by the Court of Justice is not compatible with Article 52(3)”.

As for the relevance of this question to the case at hand – it remains a mystery. The AG herself pointed out that “the admissibility of the question in this form is dubious, particularly as the Supreme Court does not state on which issue the two European courts supposedly are in conflict and the extent to which such a conflict is significant for the decision in the main proceedings” (§119).

  1. What to expect from the Court

How will the CJEU reply to these questions? My bet is that, in general, the Court will follow the AG on substance. However, it is possible that the Court will simplify the analysis and reformulate the questions in such a way that the answers will be structured around three main issues:

  • lawfulness of creating such a blacklist (and the lawful grounds for processing in the Data Protection Directive) and compatibility of this interference with both Article 7 and Article 8 of the Charter (I do hope, having low expectations nonetheless, that we will have more clarity of what constitutes interference with each of the two rights from the Court’s perspective);
  • compatibility of procedural law of Slovakia in the field of data protection with Article 47 Charter (in fact, this may be the only point where the Court could lay out a different result than the one proposed by the AG, in the sense that the condition to exhaust first administrative remedies before engaging in litigation may be considered a non-proportionate interference with the right to effective judicial remedy; it is also possible that the Court will refer for the first time directly to the GDPR);
  • the relationship between ECtHR and CJEU case-law on the same fundamental right.

Suggested citation: G. Zanfir-Fortuna, “Summary of the Opinion of AG Kokott in Puškár (on effective judicial remedies and lawful grounds for processing other than consent)”, pdpEcho.com, 24 April 2017.

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Door-to-door gathering of data by religious group goes to the CJEU

Non-automated processing | Filing system | Household Exemption | Controller | Religious community

The Court of Justice of the EU received questions for a preliminary ruling from Finland regarding the practice of a religious group (Jehova’s Witnesses) to gather and record data after door-to-door visits, without informing the concerned individuals about this practice. The questions referred in Case C-25/17 Tietosuojavaltuutettu v Jehovah’s Witnesses concern the interpretation of several key points of Directive 95/45:

  1. Exceptions from the application of the Directive – and particularly Article 3(2) second paragraph, which excludes processing “by a natural person in the course of a purely personal or household activity” from the material scope of the Directive. The referring court wants the CJEU to clarify whether this exception applies to gathering data and writing observations in paper file connected to the door-to-door activity, by members of the religious group (Question 1).
  2. The concept of “filing system” as defined in Article 2(d) of the Directive.The question referred by the national Court is whether, taken as a whole, the manual collection of personal data (name and address and other information and characteristics of a person) carried out in connection with door-to-door evangelical work constitutes a filing system, being thus subject to the application of the Directive (Question 2).
  3. The concept of “controller” under Article 2(d) of the Directive. In particular, the referring court wants the CJEU to clarify whether in this situation the controller is considered to be the religious community as a whole, “even though the religious community claims that only the individual members carrying out evangelical work have access to the data collected” (Questions 3 and 4).

Without knowing the details of the case, and based only on the information available in the questions referred by the national Court, here is my bet on how the CJEU will reply:

  • The definition of “purely household activity” does not extend to the door-to-door evangelical work of a religious community; this exemption is to be interpreted strictly (“must be narrowly construed”; “must apply only in so far as is strictly necessary”), according to the CJEU in C-212/13 Rynes (§28 and §29). The CJEU also explained that this exception applies “only where it is carried out in the purely personal or household setting of the person processing the data” (§31) – which is not the case of representatives of a religious community gathering information during evangelical work.
  • The records the evangelical workers keep should be considered as constituting a “filing system”. This concept is defined as “any structured set of personal data which are accessible according to specific criteria, whether centralized, decentralized or dispersed on a functional or geographical basis”. According to Recital 15 of the Directive, data in a filing system is “structured according to specific criteria relating to individuals, so as to permit easy access to the personal data in question”. If the religious community would claim that their records are not structured according to specific criteria – e.g. ZIP codes; members of the community/non-members; individuals interested in the community/individuals not interested, and that they don’t allow easy access to the personal data in question, then the purpose of having a detailed record would not be achieved. In other words, having an unstructured file is incongruent with the purpose of the activity. While it is true that the Member States have been given a margin of appreciation to lay down different criteria for determining the constituents of a structured set of personal data and the different criteria governing access to such a set, the criteria must be compatible with the definition in the Directive. Moreover, applying “loosely” the definition would amount to a limitation in relation to the protection of personal data, which must apply “only in so far as is strictly necessary” (Rynes §28, DRI §52).
  • The controller of this processing operation should be considered the religious community, as this entity establishes the purposes of the processing activity (the records are probably meant to facilitate the evangelical work of the community – there is no reference in the questions sent to the declared purpose of this activity, but it is only logical that such records are kept to facilitate the evangelical work) and the means of this activity (“by dividing up the areas in which the activity is carried out among members involved in evangelical work, supervising the work of those members and maintaining a list of individuals who do not wish to receive visits from evangelists” – according to the referring Court)

Since this new case provided an opportunity to discuss processing of personal data done by a religious community, there are a couple of additional points to be made.

First of all, according to Recital 35 of the Directive, “processing of personal data by official authorities for achieving aims, laid down in constitutional law or international public law, of officially recognized religious associations is carried out on important grounds of public interest“. This means that the religious associations do not need to rely on consent or on their legitimate interest as lawful grounds for processing. However, relying on public interest for the lawful ground of processing does not mean that they don’t have to comply with all the other obligations under data protection law. For instance, they still have to comply with the data quality principles, they still have to inform data subjects about the details of the processing activity and they still have to reply to requests of access, correction, erasure.

Second, some of the data gathered in such circumstances is sensitive data, as it refers to “religious beliefs” (Article 8 of the Directive, Article 9 of the GDPR). This means that the data should be processed with additional care and strengthened safeguards.

In case you are wondering whether the GDPR specifically addresses processing of data by religious communities, churches, Recital 35 of the Directive was transplanted to the GDPR, in Recital 55. In addition, the GDPR enshrines a specific provision that covers “existing data protection rules of churches and religious associations” – Article 91. This provision allows Member States that have specific legislation (“comprehensive rules”) in place dedicated to churches and religious communities, at the time of entry into force of the GDPR, to continue to apply those rules, but only if “they are brought into line with this Regulation”. In addition, according to the second paragraph, processing of personal data done by churches and religious associations that apply comprehensive national rules according to the first paragraph “shall be subject to the supervision of an independent supervisory authority, which may be specific”. Again, the conditions for this to happen is that this specific supervisory authority must fulfil the conditions laid down for independent supervisory authorities in the GDPR.

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Note: Thanks to Dr. Mihaela Mazilu-Babel for pointing out this new case.

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CJEU in Manni: data subjects do not have the right to obtain erasure from the Companies Register, but they do have the right to object

by Gabriela Zanfir-Fortuna

The recent judgment of the CJEU in Case C-398/15 Manni (9 March 2017) brings a couple of significant points to the EU data protection case-law:

  • Clarifies that an individual seeking to limit the access to his/her personal data published in a Companies Register does not have the right to obtain erasure of that data, not even after his/her company ceased to exist;
  • Clarifies that, however, that individual has the right to object to the processing of that data, based on his/her particular circumstances and on justified grounds;
  • Clarifies the link between the purpose of the processing activity and the data retention period, and underlines how important is the purpose of the processing activity when analysing whether a data subject can obtain erasure or blocking of data.
  • Provides insight into the balancing exercise between interests of third parties to have access to data published in the Companies Register and the rights of the individual to obtain erasure of the data and to object to its processing.

This commentary will highlight all points enumerated above.

1. Facts of the case

Mr Manni had requested his regional Chamber of Commerce to erase his personal data from the Public Registry of Companies, after he found out that he was losing clients who performed background checks on him through a private company that specialised in finding information in the Public Registry. This happened because Mr Manni had been an administrator of a company that was declared bankrupt more than 10 years before the facts in the main proceedings. In fact, the former company itself was radiated from the Public Registry (§23 to §29).

2. The question in Manni

The question that the CJEU had to answer in Manni was whether the obligation of Member States to keep public Companies Registers[1] and the requirement that personal data must be kept in a form which permits identification of data subjects for no longer than is necessary for the purposes for which the data were collected[2] must be interpreted as meaning that individuals must be allowed to “request the authority responsible for maintaining the Companies Register to limit, after a certain period has elapsed from the dissolution of the company concerned and on the basis of a case-by-case assessment, access to personal data concerning them and entered in that register” (§30).

3. Applicability of Directive 95/46 (Data Protection Directive – ‘DPD’)

First, CJEU clarified that its analysis does not concern processing of data by the specialized rating company, and it only refers to the obligations of the public authority keeping the companies register (§31). Second, the CJEU ascertained that the provisions of the DPD are applicable in this case:

  • the identification data of Mr Manni recorded in the Register is personal data[3] – “the fact that information was provided as part of a professional activity does not mean that it cannot be characterized as personal data” (§34);
  • the authority keeping the register is a “controller”[4] that carries out “processing of personal data”[5] by “transcribing and keeping that information in the register and communicating it, where appropriate, on request to third parties” (§35).

4. The role of the data quality principles and the legitimate grounds for processing in ensuring a high level of protection of fundamental rights

Further, CJEU recalls its case-law stating that the DPD “seeks to ensure a high level of protection of the fundamental rights and freedoms of natural persons” (§37) and that the provisions of the DPD “must necessarily be interpreted in the light of the fundamental rights guaranteed by the Charter”, and especially Articles 7 – respect for private life and 8 – protection of personal data (§39). The Court recalls the content of Articles 7 and 8 and specifically lays out that the requirements under Article 8 Charter “are implemented inter alia in Articles 6, 7, 12, 14 and 28 of Directive 95/46” (§40).

The Court highlights the significance of the data quality principles and the legitimate grounds for processing under the DPD in the context of ensuring a high level of protection of fundamental rights:

“[S]ubject to the exceptions permitted under Article 13 of that directive, all processing of personal data must comply, first, with the principles relating to data quality set out in Article 6 of the directive and, secondly, with one of the criteria for making data processing legitimate listed in Article 7 of the directive” (§41 and case-law cited).

The Court applies this test in reverse order, which is, indeed, more logical. A processing activity should, first, be legitimate under one of the lawful grounds for processing and only after ascertaining that this is the case, the question of compliance with the data quality principles should arise.

CJEU finds that in the case at hand the processing activity is legitimized by three lawful grounds (§42, §43):

  • compliance with a legal obligation [Article 7(c)];
  • the exercise of official authority or the performance of a task carried out in the public interest [Article 7(e)] and
  • the realization of a legitimate interest pursued by the controller or by the third parties to whom the data are disclosed [Article 7(f)].

5. The link between the data retention principle, the right to erasure and the right to object

Article 6(1)(e) of the DPD requires that personal data are kept in a form which permits identification of data subjects for no longer than what is necessary for the purposes for which the data were collected or for which they are further processed. This means that controllers should only retain personal data up until it serves the purpose for which it was processed and automatically anonymise, erase or otherwise make unavailable that data. If the controller does not comply with this obligation, the data subject has two possible avenues to stop the processing: he/she can either ask for erasure of that data, or they can object to the processing based on their particular situation and a justified objection.

CJEU explains that “in the event of failure to comply with the condition laid down in Article 6(1)(e)” of the DPD, “Member States guarantee the person concerned, pursuant to Article 12(b) thereof, the right to obtain from the controller, as appropriate, the erasure or blocking of the data concerned” (§46 and C-131/12 Google/Spain §70).

In addition, the Court explains, Member States also must “grant the data subject the right, inter alia in the cases referred to in Article 7(e) and (f) of that directive, to object at any time on compelling legitimate grounds relating to his particular situation to the processing of data relating to him, save where otherwise provided by national legislation”, pursuant to Article 14(a) DPD (§47).

The CJEU further explains that “the balancing to be carried out under subparagraph (a) of the first paragraph of Article 14 … enables account to be taken in a more specific manner of all the circumstances surrounding the data subject’s particular situation. Where there is a justified objection, the processing instigated by the controller may no longer involve those data” (§47).

6. The pivotal role of the purpose of the processing activity in granting the right to erasure and the right to object

After establishing these general rules, the Court decides that in order to establish where data subjects have the “right to apply to the authority responsible for keeping the register to erase or block the personal data entered in that register after a certain period of time, or to restrict access to it, it is first necessary to ascertain the purpose of that registration” (§48).

The pivotal role of the purpose of the processing operation should not come as a surprise, given the fact that the data retention principle is tightly linked to accomplishing the purpose of the processing operation.

In this case, the Court looked closely at Directive 68/151 and explained at length that the purpose of the disclosure provided for by it is “to protect in particular the interests of third parties in relation to joint stock companies and limited liability companies, since the only safeguards they offer to third parties are their assets” (§49) and “to guarantee legal certainty in relation to dealings between companies and third parties in view of the intensification of trade between Member States” (§50). CJEU also referred to primary EU law, and specifically to Article 54(3)(g) EEC, one of the legal bases of the directive, which “refers to the need to protect the interests of third parties generally, without distinguishing or excluding any categories falling within the ambit of that term” (§51).

The Court further noted that Directive 68/151 makes no express provision regarding the necessity of keeping personal data in the Companies Register “also after the activity has ceased and the company concerned has been dissolved” (§52). However, the Court notes that “it is common ground that even after the dissolution of a company, rights and legal relations relating to it continue to exist” (§53) and “questions requiring such data may arise for many years after a company has ceased to exist” (§54).

Finally, CJEU declared:

“in view of the range of possible scenarios … it seems impossible, at present, to identify a single time limit, as from the dissolution of a company, at the end of which the inclusion of such data in the register and their disclosure would no longer be necessary” (§55).

7. Conclusion A: there is no right to erasure

The Court concluded that “in those circumstances” the data retention principle in Article 6(1)(e) DPD and the right to erasure in Article 12(b) DPD do not guarantee for the data subjects referred to in Directive 68/151 a right to obtain “as a matter of principle, after a certain period of time from the dissolution of the company concerned, the erasure of personal data concerning them” (§56).

After already reaching this conclusion, the Court also explained that this interpretation of the provisions in question does not result in “disproportionate interference with the fundamental rights of the persons concerned, and particularly their right to respect for private life and their right to protection of personal data as guaranteed by Articles 7 and 8 of the Charter” (§57).

To this end, the Court took into account:

  • that Directive 68/151 requires “disclosure only for a limited number of personal data items” (§58) and
  • that “it appears justified that natural persons who choose to participate in trade through such a company are required to disclose the data relating to their identity and functions within that company, especially since they are aware of that requirement when they decide to engage in such activity” (§59).

8. Conclusion B: but there is a right to object

After acknowledging that, in principle, the need to protect the interests of third parties in relation to joint-stock companies and limited liability companies and to ensure legal certainty, fair trading and thus the proper functioning of the internal market take precedence over the right of the data subject to object under Article 14 DPD, the Court points out that

it cannot be excluded, however, that there may be specific situations in which the overriding and legitimate reasons relating to the specific case of the person concerned justify exceptionally that access to personal data entered in the register is limited, upon expiry of a sufficiently long period after the dissolution of the company in question, to third parties who can demonstrate a specific interest in their consultation” (§60).

While the Court leaves it to the national courts to assess each case “having regard to all the relevant circumstances and taking into account the time elapsed since the dissolution of the company concerned”, it also points out that, in the case of Mr Manni, “the mere fact that, allegedly, the properties of a tourist complex built … do not sell because of the fact that potential purchasers of those properties have access to that data in the company register, cannot be regarded as constituting such a reason, in particular in view of the legitimate interest of those purchasers in having that information” (§63).

9. Post Scriptum

The Court took a very pragmatic approach in dealing with the case of Mr Manni. The principles of interpretation it laid down are solid – such an analysis indeed requires looking at the legitimate grounds for processing and the relevant data quality principle. Having the Court placing strong emphasis on the significance of the purpose of the processing activity is welcome, just like having more guidance on the balancing exercise of the rights and interests in question. In addition, a separate assessment of the right to obtain erasure and of the right to object is very helpful with a view towards the future – the full entering into force of the GDPR and its heightened rights of the data subject.

The aspect of the judgment that leaves some room for improvement is analysing the proportionality of the interference of the virtually unlimited publishing of personal data in the Companies Register with Articles 7 and 8 of the Charter. The Court does tackle this, but lightly – and it brings two arguments only after already declaring that the interference is not disproportionate. Moreover, the Court does not distinguish between interferences with Article 7 and interferences with Article 8.

Finally, I was happy to see that the predicted outcome of the case, as announced in the pdpEcho commentary on the Opinion of the Advocate General Bot, proved to be mainly correct: “the Court will follow the AG’s Opinion to a large extent. However, it may be more focused on the fundamental rights aspect of balancing the two Directives and it may actually analyse the content of the right to erasure and its exceptions. The outcome, however, is likely to be the same.”

Suggested citation: G. Zanfir-Fortuna, “CJEU in Manni: data subjects do not have the right to obtain erasure from the Companies Register, but they do have the right to object”, pdpEcho.com, 13 March 2017.


[1] Article 3 of Directive 68/151.

[2] Article 6(1)(e) of Directive 95/46.

[3] Article 2(a) of Directive 95/46.

[4] Article 2(d) of Directive 95/46.

[5] Article 2(b) of Directive 95/46.

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The right to be forgotten goes back to the CJEU (with Google, CNIL, sensitive data, freedom of speech)

The Conseil d’Etat announced today that it referred several questions to the Court of Justice of the EU concerning the interpretation of the right to be forgotten, pursuant to Directive 95/46 and following the CJEU’s landmark decision in the Google v Spain case.

The questions were raised within proceedings involving the application of four individuals to the Conseil d’Etat to have decisions issued by the CNIL (French DPA) quashed. These decisions rejected their requests for injunctions against Google to have certain Google Search results delisted.

According to the press release of the Conseil d’Etat, “these requests were aimed at removing links relating to various pieces of information :a video that explicitly revealed the nature of the relationship that an applicant was deemed to have entertained with a person holding a public office; a press article relating to the suicide committed by a member of the Church of Scientology, mentioning that one of the applicants was the public relations manager of that Church; various articles relating to criminal proceedings concerning an applicant; and articles relating the conviction of another applicant for having sexually aggressed minors.

The Conseil d’Etat further explained that in order to rule on these claims, it has deemed necessary to answer a number of questions “raising serious issues with regard to the interpretation of European law in the light of the European Court of Justice’s judgment in its Google Spain case.

Such issues are in relation with the obligations applying to the operator of a search engine with regard to web pages that contain sensitive data, when collecting and processing such information is illegal or very narrowly framed by legislation, on the grounds of its content relating to sexual orientations, political, religious or philosophical opinions, criminal offences, convictions or safety measures. On that point, the cases brought before the Conseil d’Etat raise questions in close connection with the obligations that lie on the operator of a search engine, when such information is embedded in a press article or when the content that relates to it is false or incomplete”.

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Greek judges asked the CJEU if they should dismiss evidence gathered under the national law that transposed the invalidated Data Retention Directive

Here is a new case at the Court of Justice of the EU that the data protection world will be looking forward to, as it addresses questions about the practical effects of the invalidation of the Data Retention Directive.

old_bailey_microcosm

(licensed under Creative Commons)

Case C-475/16 K. (yes, like those Kafka characters) concerns criminal proceedings against K. before Greek courts, which apparently involve evidence gathered under the Greek national law that transposed the now-invalidated Data Retention Directive. The Directive was invalidated in its entirety by the CJEU in 2014, after the Court found in its Digital Rights Ireland judgment that the provisions of the Directive breached Articles 7 (right to respect for private life) and 8 (right to the protection of personal data) of the Charter of Fundamental Rights.

The Greek judges sent in August a big set out questions for a preliminary ruling to the CJEU (17 questions). Among those, there are a couple of very interesting ones, because they deal with the effects in practice of the invalidation of an EU Directive and what happens with national laws of the Member States that transposed the Directive.

For instance, the national judge asks whether national courts are obliged not to apply legislative measures transposing the annulled Directive and whether this obligation also means that they must dismiss evidence obtained as a consequence of those legislative measures (Question 3). The national judge also wants to know if maintaining the national law that transposes an invalidated Directive constitutes an obstacle to the establishment and functioning of the internal market (Question 16).

Another question raised by the national judge is whether the national legislation that transposed the annulled Data Retention Directive and that remained in force at national level after the annulment is still considered as falling under the scope of EU law (Question 4). The answer to this question is important because the EU Charter and the supremacy of EU law do not apply to situations that fall outside the scope of EU law.

The Greek judge didn’t miss the opportunity to also ask about the effect on the national law transposing the Data Retention Directive of the fact that this Directive was also enacted to implement a harmonised framework at the European level under Article 15(1) of the ePrivacy Directive (Question 5). The question is whether this fact is enough to bring the surviving national data retention laws under the scope of EU law.

As long as the Charter will be considered applicable to the facts of the case, the national judge further wants to know whether national law that complies partly with the criteria set out in the Digital Rights Ireland decision still breaches Articles 7 and 8 of the Charter because it doesn’t comply with all of it (Question 13). For instance, the national judge estimates that the national law doesn’t comply with the request that the persons whose data are retained must be at least indirectly in a situation which is liable to give rise to criminal prosecutions (para 58 DRI), but it complies with the request that the national law must contain substantive and procedural conditions for the access of competent authorities to the retained data and objective criteria by which the number of persons authorised to access these data is limited to what is strictly necessary (paras 61, 62 DRI).

Lastly, it will be also interesting to see whether the Court decides to address the issue of what “serious crime” means in the context of limiting the exercise of fundamental rights (Questions 10 and 11).

If you would like to dwell into some of these topics, have a look at the AG Opinion in the Tele2Sverige case, published on 19 July 2016. The judgment in that case is due on 21 December 2016. Also, have a look at this analysis of the Opinion.

As for a quick “what to expect” in the K. case from my side, here it is:

  • the CJEU will seriously re-organise the 17 questions and regroup them in 4 to 5 topics, also clarifying that it only deals with the interpretation of EU law, not national law or facts in national proceedings;
  • the national laws transposing the Data Retention Directive will probably be considered as being in the field of EU law – as they also regulate within the ambit of the ePrivacy Directive;
  • the Court will restate the criteria in DRI and probably clarify that all criteria must be complied with, no exceptions, in order for national measures to comply with the Charter;
  • the CJEU will probably not give indications to the national courts on whether they should admit or dismiss evidence collected on the bases of national law that does not comply with EU law – it’s too specific and the Court is ‘in the business’ of interpreting EU law; the best case scenario, which is possible, is that the Court will give some guidance on the obligations of Member States (and hopefully their authorities) regarding the effects of their transposing national laws when relevant EU secondary law is annulled;
  • as for what “serious crime” means in the context of limiting fundamental rights, let’s see about that. Probably the Court will give useful guidance.

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